The story of Ruth and Naomi is found in the book of Ruth in the Jewish Scriptures. The Scriptures are traditionally divided into three sections: Torah (the first five books assigned to Moses), the Prophets (Nevi’im), and Writings (Ketuvim, where we find Ruth). Chronologically, the book falls within the period of the Book of Judges and 1 Samuel, books which relate the settlement of the twelve tribes of Israel in the land of Canaan after their escape from Egypt (Exodus). Although placed within this timeframe, scholars consider the creation of the book in the period of the 6th-4th centuries BCE.
The book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, a woman from Bethlehem, who was married to Elimelech, with whom she had two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. The family emigrated to the neighboring territory of Moab (for reasons not stated, but most likely either famine or work opportunities). While living in Moab, the two sons married local women, Ruth and Orpah. Elimelech then died.
Naomi wanted to return to her home village, where, as a widow, she could rely upon relatives to help keep her. She advised the daughters-in-law to return to their own families. Oprah did so. Ruth, however, replied:
Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)
The two returned to Bethlehem near the time of the barley harvest. Naomi and Ruth went and "gleaned" in the fields. 'Gleaning' ("to draw") is a concept found in the book of Leviticus as a means of charity:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (19:9-10)
The field was owned by Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband Elimelech. Boaz noticed Ruth and made sure enough grain was left to feed her and Naomi. The story highlights a concept known as Levirate marriage. For the bloodline not to be broken, a dead man’s brother or close relative was to marry the widow:
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, "My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me." Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, "I do not want to marry her," his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line." That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, "My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do." "I will do whatever you say," Ruth answered. (Ruth 3:1-5)
To "uncover the feet" was a biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse. However, Boaz informed Ruth that there was a closer kinsman. The next morning, he met the kinsman in front of the elders at the city gate for a resolution. The kinsman did not want to jeopardize his own estates, so he conceded to Boaz by taking off his sandal and handing it over. The story concludes with the birth of the son of Ruth and Boaz, Obed. We learn that Obed became the father of Jesse, the father of King David.
The Purpose of the Book of Ruth
In addition to providing a window on the culture and practices of ancient Israel, the book of Ruth highlights two Jewish concepts: redemption, and chesed or "loving kindness." Redemption meant being saved from sin or error. It also included the idea of regaining something in exchange for a debt or ownership. In this case, both Naomi and Ruth were redeemed by Boaz’s actions so that they would survive and generate offspring. Chesed was both the loving kindness of God to Israel as well as the kindness that is to be shared among humans in works of charity. It was also understood as loyalty either to God or persons. Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law was extended to Naomi’s God as well.
While placed during the time of Judges (c. 1100 BCE), the consensus of scholars has the composition of the book during the time of the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem under the auspices of Cyrus the Great (r. c. 550-530), the king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (539 BCE). The community was guided by two priestly individuals, Nehemiah and Ezra, who were in charge of the rebuilding of the Temple.
The Prophets of Israel had blamed the disaster of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586 BCE) on the sins of Israel, particularly the sin of idolatry. The books of Nehemiah and Ezra outline their attempts to make sure that this would never happen again. Believing that intermarriage with non-Jews would lead to idolatrous practices, they banned intermarriage:
On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. (Nehemiah 13:1-3)
The book of Ruth may have been written as a reaction against this ban. It demonstrates that non-Jewish foreigners could become ideal exemplars of Jewish tradition and practices, even the Moabites. Not only were Naomi and Ruth good Jews, but Ruth became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David.
The story of Naomi and Ruth is often called upon in scholarly analyses of the study of women in the Old Testament and gender roles in ancient Judaism. Feminists continue to argue both sides. Some denounce the story for exploiting the evils of patriarchy as women are only valued for their procreation, while others praise the resourcefulness of Naomi and Ruth to survive. In the Western tradition, Ruth’s speech to Naomi is often utilized in marriage vows.
In Jewish synagogues, the Book of Ruth is read during the holiday of Shavuot. Originally an ancient grain festival that celebrated the early harvest of some grains in the spring, it occurs seven weeks after the second Seder of Passover. By tradition, this was also a celebration of when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. This story combines harvesting and obedience to the Law of Moses.